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Interview with AMNESIA actress Marthe Keller

July 18, 2017

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Swiss actress Marthe Keller is probably best known for three movies that came out back-to-back in the 1970s. In two of them she stood her own alongside American actors at the point in time when they had hit movie star status. In John Schlesinger’s 1976 thriller, “Marathon Man”, she played Dustin Hoffman’s girlfriend and then she played Al Pacino’s muse in Sydney Pollack’s “Bobby Dangerfield”, released in 1977. That same year, she could also be seen as a terrorist leader in the thriller “Black Sunday”, directed by John Frankenheimer. In all three films, she had a strong, mesmerizing presence that caught the attention of viewers and filmmakers. But, those are just the films she’s most recognized for in her long, illustrious and still very active career. 

After those two years, she would work with acclaimed directors such as Billy Wilder, the late John G. Avildsen and, in 2011, with Clint Eastwood in “The Hereafter”. Of course, those films are just her work in studio films. Keller would go on to star in various German and French films and TV series, as well as appearing in several European and American plays, while adding “opera director” to her resume in 1999.

Last year, she starred in the French/Belgium film “After Love”, which will be released next month – but before then, you can catch “Amnesia”, a thought-provoking drama directed by Barbet Schroeder (“Barfly”, “Reversal of Fortune” and “Single White Female”) which premiered at 2015’s Canne Film Festival.

Keller plays Martha, a sixtysomething German woman who for years has lived in a mountainside chalet on the island of Ibiza, overlooking the Mediterranean Sea off the eastern coast of Spain. She left Germany when she was young just as World War II was starting, after learning of the atrocities of the concentration camps and realizing her Jewish friends starting to disappear. Her secluded life is disrupted when a twentysomething Joe (Max Riemelt) moves into the chalet below her from Germany right after the fall of the Berlin Wall, hoping to make his mark as a DJ on the nascent music scene on the island, in particular the nightclub called Amnesia. The two gradually hit it off and develop a close admiration for each other, with a somewhat hesitant Martha helping him to acclimate to island life and Joe introducing her to his music, which helps draw Martha out of her solitary routine.

Things get complicated when Joe is surprised to learn that Martha is German, despite not speaking to him in their native tongue. He can’t understand her reasoning why, nor why she refuses to drive a German car or drink German wine. When Joe’s mother (Corinna Kirchhoff), a successful doctor in Germany and his grandfather (Bruce Ganz), who had worked in a concentration camp long ago, arrive for a visit, both the perception and perspective of Germany during the war and nationalism is brought to light. The result of that visit challenges how Joe views his family and finds Martha reevaluating her long stance against the country of her birth, which leads both of them to examine the status and future of their relationship.

Keller is wonderful in the role of Martha, conveying an calm and inviting presence that draws viewers in closer to this strong and independent character. The actress handles the character’s gradually revealing complexities with great authenticity and subtlety.

To promote the July 21st U.S. release of “Amnesia” on VOD, Keller was to have flown from France to New York City, but a recent back-injury prevented her from flying. Nevertheless, we talked on the phone and, as challenging as cross-continental telephonic communication can tend to be, the result was an absolute delightful as you’ll see. Keller was as charming and disarming as she was frank and open during our conversation.

Check it out below….

 

 

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DAVID J. FOWLIE: Was there something specific about this role that attracted you to “Amnesia”?

MARTHE KELLER: I was attracted to the overall story. My father had left Germany before I was born and his brother had gone to Russia during the war. So, he approached my father and he said, “You know what you did was easy. It’s easy to leave, but it’s difficult to stay and try to stay and clean, but how can you stay and clean when you’re out of Germany.” So anyway, I’m still grateful that my father left and that he became free. Then he met my mother in Switzerland. If not, I would be a daughter of somebody I would perhaps wouldn’t like. I love my father and I am so proud that he said, “No”, and that is a little bit similar to the character of the mother of the boyfriend I have in the movie, when she says to me it’s easy for you going to Ibiza, instead of staying and cleaning up the country. But I don’t agree completely with that. I think it’s better to leave (laughs). I was really interesting in the subject though.

DJF: It is a very interesting subject….

MK: It’s subtle, David. It’s subtle. Very subtle. You don’t see concentration camps. It’s just only about talks, which I like. And the love story is not – you don’t go to bed, you don’t see the concentrations camps – everything is between the lines and I like that very much.

DJF: That’s definitely what I appreciated about it. 

MK: (laughs) Thank God, we spared that! It would be a different movie. It would be cliche. I think it’s more powerful not to do that. It’s very Barbet Schroeder-like…

DJF: Well, you know, it’s as the saying goes “less is more”….

MK: That’s exactly! Less is more. And our fantasies are enough to understand what is going on.

DJF: Yeah and in doing so, there’s a trust in the audience. 

MK: Exactly. You don’t underestimate.

DJF: Since the character you play is based on Barbet Schroeder’s mother, were there conversations with him about her, prior to shooting that would inform you of how to approach the role?

MK: No. That’s the wonderful thing, because I was a little bit scared. I said, “you know, it’s your mom. I mean, you know her. I don’t know her. So, I will feel like I’m not doing what she did.” He said right away, “Forget about that! It’s not about my mother, it’s because of my mother that I do that. There are a lot of things related, but it’s not her life. It’s about everything that she did.” A lot of things is what she did. She lived without electricity. She went on the boat to get some fish because she had she had nothing else to eat and she had some potatoes from the garden. But, he didn’t say, “You should do that or walk or talk like that”. So, that was freedom and I just had a little bit of a tough time to find the look. So, it didn’t look like modern, in pants and on the other hand, she’s not a hippy. He hates to have the kind of hippy in Ibiza. She’s not that. And then I added a little bit of period clothes, because she really doesn’t care. Still, she’s clean and has a couple of things. So, I bought myself all the dresses and he agreed right away. It was easy-going with Barbet. We had really a good – it was a good team. It was a lot of Nietzsche and Walter Benjamin and a lot of things to eat, which I don’t know if it’s absolutely necessary, because it’s just beautiful to eat them. The nature is also important. It’s like meditation, you know. And it’s like a grown-up movie, in a way, from her point of view. Kind and calm. It’s not hysterical. I think, she ages well. She made the decision and she stays with it.

 

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DJF: “Kind and calm” are good words to use for the overall tone of this film. 

MK: That’s it. Exactly. It’s just, it’s also the motivation – this metaphor of love is also, certainly, for love, sometimes it opens your eyes and you see you are really stubborn. You see that, perhaps, it’s true that Germany changed. This young boy, he did not know about it. Why should I always not drinking German wine and driving in German car? She is really stubborn now. She let it go. She made freedom when she starts to speak German with him. That’s huge. It’s terrible because this language is so beautiful and this music is so beautiful and when she starts to play the cello again, it’s like freedom, embracing where she came from. I think the movie is very subtle. I don’t know if one gets it, but I thought it was very subtle. The way she suddenly starts to talk with him and laughing about the little poem and she’s surprised that her brogue came out after so man years in a language she had sweared never ever wants to use again. So, this is what love can do. It doesn’t mean you have to go to bed. It could be something else to.

DJF: I totally agree. There’s a connection needed between the two of them. 

MK: That’s what I mean with “kind”. That’s what I mean with “kind”. She’s a tough cookie, but there’s a kindness about her letting it go and then it’s calm, right into the sunset.

DJF: Right. And there’s a reason she’s a tough cookie. 

MK: There’s a reason! Exactly! Like a dog who bites, it’s because one day he was bitten. She has a real reason and it’s powerful today to have somebody who stays faithful to their mind. You know? One day, they make up the mind and that’s the way she lived. She didn’t want to go back. You know, it’s easy if you change, if you get suddenly rich, but she got suddenly poor. So, good for her. She is a no-sayer. I like her. Still, it’s not Barbet’s the one who has to be careful, because it’s subtle. It’s subtle. If you get it, it’s really good.

DJF: In the movie….

MK: Did you say you are writing from Chicago? The movie does not open in Chicago now, no?

DJF: No, it doesn’t. Yes, I am a critic here in Chicago. But the movie will be available On Demand, or online, this Friday….

MK: I see. Oh yes. It will be available on Netflix or whatever. Yes, that’s good. Like everything that is seen today.

 

NOTE: After this interview was completed, I became aware that “Amnesia” will actually be showing at the Gene Siskel Film Center from July 28th thru August 3rd. See details here

 

amnesiakeller

 

DJF: Right. Which is why I was very curious and eager to see the film prior to its release here in the States. I really like the use of the term “voluntary amnesia” in this film. I think it’s somewhat of a real-life universal approach to burying traumatic events of our past, in order to move on in life. Is that something that’s relatable to you, did you connect with the definition of that term?

MK: Personally not. Because I always have to work out whatever I have which is negative. I cannot stay with it and just ignore it and put amnesia on it. I can’t do that. It would make me sleepless. I couldn’t. But, I’ve been very lucky till now in life. I didn’t have real traumatic events. I can imagine that if you lose somebody in life then there is a something of a blockage which can help you, in order to move on. Maybe there’s something you don’t want to hear anymore and it’s just gone. I don’t have that, because my problems that I have, I feel they’re always solvable. You know, I can always do something. So, I didn’t have to use that. But, I can’t imagine, I mean, we also as actors use our imagination to imagine hopw it would be if something like that had happened.

I mean, it’s also not just me in the movie who has amnesia, it’s also Bruno Ganz, his character, who certainly forgot how it really was in these camps. He recalls a certain version of how it was, but then he starts to realize the truth. So, there is not just amnesia with her. It’s also the club that’s named Amnesia as well. It’s the title of the movie. It’s people that don’t want to deal with it, but I think she has no amnesia. She did not forget. It’s that people sometimes experience it. I don’t know, you’d have to ask Barbet exactly. I think it’s more related to Bruno Ganz’s character. He didn’t want to believe in it anymore and he certainly doesn’t know how it really was. It’s not that he was lying. He wanted so much to put in a drawer somewhere, but when he opens the drawer, he makes this up. He doesn’t know what it really was.

DJF: It’s true. His character had a traumatic experience as well

MK: Yes. Yes and to hear that in the song he plays and in a poor apartment in Berlin, it’s not the same thing. But with the sunset there and the paella, it’s just, it’s very weird.

DJF: With each role an actor takes on, there is hopefully a new element of the acting process to learn from or walk away with. Could you say that about “Amnesia”? 

MK: I think it goes back to “kindness”, which I mentioned before. I’m somebody who likes energy – I like walking around and this is really somebody who has a great freedom inside of thinking she did the right thing. She still has had a good life, because she likes where she is. Nobody forces her. She’s very independent. She’s a very independent woman. And it gave me some freedom inside me too. It gave me big freedom. I was, for example, never nervous about a scene. I was very calm. I think that was it mostly. Also, I’m always ready for something to change my life, which happened with this young boy. So, always be a little bit alert, but don’t lose your character, because something could happen that you take away, which would be stupid. So, it’s a little bit like coming with age, you get wiser.

 

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DJF: I like that. This movie definitely made me appreciate living off the grid. Without electricity and how when you live without things, you have a better appreciation for what’s around you and what you need in life. And when you’re around nature, there’s certainly “freedom”, as you say, in that.

MK: And so rich! And the beauty of the candlelight or petrol lamp, is so much more beautiful than the electricity. And to take the time to admire a flower or a tree or just walking through something – to listen to the wind and the breeze, it makes you feel so rich. I’m so related to that, because whenever I come to go to my mountains. I have a house high up in the Alps. That’s where I feel free. I can for hours and hours, just walk and feel contemplative – when you just watch and admire something. This is also part of meditation. You don’t have to just sit in a yoga position in order to meditate. Just watch and observe the nature. It makes you feel so humble. You’re nothing. Nature was there before. We just come and then go. And it helps you also to think, “it’s just only a movie. Let’s not get crazy everything you do something and a movie comes out.” But, it helps you so much to trust in that. Walk, for example – I have to learn so much for the next movie, which is starting in the next couple of days. I can only learn it as I walk, walk walk – I walk hours. I walk for hours. I just hurt my back. So, I can walk, but not sit and that’s why I could not take the airplane. But, it’s so important. Once you go through nature, there’s big freedom and if you can have the courage to go away from our internet and cell phones and everything – how we’re so hooked up. It’s terrible. It’s toxic. It’s much more toxic than cigarettes now. So, she wouldn’t have a phone. You know?

DJF: I agree and appreciate with everything you just said. In fact, next week, I will be taking an annual trip with my 11-year-old daughter away from the city for a week, into the woods by a river. No internet, no electricity. No running water, just bucket showers.

MK: Oh, good for you! Bravo! Oh, congratulations! She will never ever ever forget those moments.

DJF: Yep, we just catch frogs by the river.

MK: Oh, this is great! That’s really good! Did you read the book called The Wall?

DJF: The Wall? 

MK: Yes. It’s a little bit like a metaphor of the German war, but also of nuclear devastation. Marlin Haushofer is the German woman who wrote it. It’s wonderful. You should read it. It’s a woman who invites people to a chalet and everybody needs to buy some stuff and she stays home and the people don’t come back. And the next day, she goes out with her dog and suddenly there’s a wall outside and she cannot go any further. It’s a metaphor. And she lives all alone and has some stuff in the kitchen, but then she has to start planting. She has a cow and she has a dog. She has cats who come and some kittens. She lives for years with nothing. She has to be comfortable with going out in the wintertime and you read it like a Hitchcock story. Everything is so important and she’s all alone.  She’s like Robinson Crusoe. So, for your daughter, it’s important you do that! Bravo!

DJF: I agree completely. 

MK: This is education. This is education for her.

DJF: I so appreciate your time. I look forward to your future work. It’s been great to talk with you. 

MK: All the best to you and have a wonderful time with your daughter. That’s all that counts.

DJF: In closing, I just want to say “Thank you” for discovering Jessica Chastain. 

MK: Ohhhhhhh, I love her so much.

DJF: We all do. 

MK: Yes, but if it wouldn’t have been me, then somebody else ten minutes later would have seen her. You know? (laughs) She’s just that good. It was just a coincidence. All the best to you!

DJF: All the best to you! Thank you very much.

MK: Thank you! Bye-bye.

 

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“Amnesia” will be released on July 21st on VOD and will have a limited run at the Gene Siskel Film Center in Chicago, IL from July 28th thru August 3rd. 

 

 

 

 

 

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